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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

O’Brien: Will sports gambling foster addiction? Bet on it

By Timothy L. O’Brien
Published: December 27, 2021, 6:01am

Ben Affleck, the movie star and avid gambler who has struggled with alcohol addiction, is one of sports gambling’s most visible pitchmen. He’s center stage in a TV ad for the mobile wagering app WynnBET. “We all want to win. Let’s win together!” Affleck exclaims.

Aaron Paul, the actor who only played an addict in “Breaking Bad” and waved off hard drug use himself after seeing his girlfriend consumed by addiction, is a spokesman for Bet365, a sports wagering app. It has more than 63 million global users and offers newcomers a $500 credit to join. “You need to ask yourself, why am I not a member of the world’s favorite sports book?” Paul asks in one ad.

Those who scroll through both these apps are offered sports betting mainstays — wagers on money lines, touchdowns, parlays, fight outcomes, total hits and other outcomes. At the bottom of the screen is this bit of advice: “If you or someone you know has a gambling problem and wants help, call 1-800 GAMBLER.”

Call me old-fashioned, but as sports betting enjoys a pandemic-fueled expansion across the country, shouldn’t we worry more about the possibility of a spike in gambling disorders? And isn’t it jarring that people who should know better are enthusiastically pushing this?

A reminder: For most gamblers, betting is recreation. Based on historical data, only about 1 percent of adults in the U.S. have a severe problem such as compulsive gambling. Some 2 percent to 3 percent of adults have less severe problems; they’re not addicts, but gambling causes them financial and social miseries. Most people wager for fun.

The trouble is those small percentages represent 6 million to 8 million people. And most academic and clinical studies of gambling disorders in the U.S. were undertaken when legal sports gambling was confined to Nevada, and backroom wagering with bookies wasn’t digital. The sports gambling boom that began three years ago after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Nevada’s monopoly, together with the accessibility provided by mobile devices and apps, mean that a significantly larger, and younger, share of Americans is now at risk. It will take time for researchers to catch up with the current sports betting world and the troubles that may be visited on individuals and communities.

“We’ve been engaged in a massive cultural experiment with gambling, and we’re delivering gambling to America in ways that are unprecedented worldwide,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, a research and advocacy group. “No one, at least from an addiction standpoint, has been able to look at what the impact will be on problem gambling.”

The Irish gambling company Flutter Entertainment doubled its revenue last year, thanks to many of its brands, but especially FanDuel, one of the most popular sports betting apps in the U.S. Flutter also purchased Sky Bet from Rupert Murdoch’s media company last year, and that is now the most popular gambling app in the U.K.

The New York Times recently reported that Sky Bet used its app’s data-profiling software to scrutinize one compulsive gambler’s betting history and favorite sports with such precision that it could essentially stalk and hook him — even when he was trying to quit. “They had taken his addiction and turned it into code,” a lawyer representing the gambler told the Times. Sky Bet told the Times that it didn’t target vulnerable gamblers and took “safer gambling responsibilities incredibly seriously.”

With the Supreme Court empowering states to legalize and regulate gambling as they see fit, the onus is on states to monitor the industry. But as Whyte points out, states are increasingly beholden to gambling companies that create new jobs and tax revenues. Legislatures are unlikely to make an issue of problem gambling if it threatens their new cash cows.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.